The European Commission has claimed the credit for getting Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft to agree on a code of conduct which will address "illegal online hate speech", despite the companies already following practices demanded by EU bureaucrats.
The three-page code of conduct (PDF) seeks to establish how online platforms can avoid offering "opportunities for illegal online hate speech to spread virally."
Under the code, IT companies will have an obligation to "prohibit the promotion of incitement to violence and hateful conduct" as well as create dedicated teams to deal with the receipt of valid removal notifications in less than 24 hours, though national laws in the EU already require them to do this.
Following the terrorist attacks in Brussels last year, the EU's Justice and Home Affairs Council issued a statement saying "the commission will intensify work with IT companies, notably in the EU Internet Forum, to counter terrorist propaganda and to develop by June 2016 a code of conduct against hate speech online."
This code of conduct is the result, but it enters a particularly difficult area for legislation. The IT companies involved, which are all part of the EU Internet Forum, as well as the EU Commission itself, reportedly "stress the need to defend the right to freedom of expression" which may be seen to provide a defence to those allegedly spreading hate speech.
The European Court of Human Rights has stated that the freedom of expression “is applicable not only to "information" or "ideas" that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population'.”
Fortunately, illegal hate speech has been legally defined by the EU's Framework Decision 2008/913/JHA (PDF), which says it includes speech such as that which publicly incites violence, or denies or trivialises crimes against humanity.
Vĕra Jourová, the EU Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, said: "Social media is unfortunately one of the tools that terrorist groups use to radicalise young people and racist use to spread violence and hatred. This agreement is an important step forward to ensure that the internet remains a place of free and democratic expression, where European values and laws are respected."
Spokespersons from all of the IT companies added that they already follow the code of conduct and work hard to promote counter-narratives. ®